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Coleman v. Champion International Corporation/Champion Forest Products

decided: June 4, 1993.


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas. D.C. DOCKET NUMBER CA9-91-73. JUDGE Robert M. Parker

Before Higginbotham, Smith, and DeMOSS, Circuit Judges.

Author: Demoss

DeMOSS, Circuit Judge:


This case, a suit for pension benefits, is controlled by ERISA. Tony Coleman ("Coleman") brought suit to the recover proceeds of a pension plan, asserting that he was the beneficiary of Charlie Coleman. Charlie Coleman, Coleman's father, worked at Southland Paper Mill, Inc. ("Southland") from 1964 to 1978. St. Regis Paper Co. ("St. Regis") acquired Southland through merger in December 1977, and Champion International Corp. ("Champion"), in turn acquired St. Regis through merger in 1984.

Southland established a pension plan for its employees on January 1, 1954 entitled "The Retirement Plan for Salaried Employees of Southland Paper Mills, Inc." (the "Plan"). The Plan was amended periodically as mandated by federal law. Charlie Coleman was an active participant in the Plan with Southland, and later, with St. Regis. After St. Regis acquired Southland, Plan participants could elect to remain covered under the Plan or to shift their coverage to the qualified retirement plan sponsored by St. Regis. Coleman chose to remain covered under the Plan. Benefits under the Plan were payable in the form of a life annuity of $155.61 each month, beginning at age 65. Coleman was divorced at the time that he terminated employment and he never remarried.

The Plan provides participants with several pension payout options. An employee who terminates after becoming fully vested, but prior to age 65, can elect to start receiving his pension payments ("pay status") any time after age 55. Such a choice reduces the amount of the annuity payment to the actuarial equivalent of a life annuity beginning at age 65. The Plan further provides that if a terminated vested employee dies before going into pay status, no pension is payable under the Plan unless the employee has elected to be paid in the form of a joint and spousal survivor annuity. This annuity provides benefits to the employee's surviving spouse after the employee's death.

The Plan provides those electing to go into pay status can receive other forms of payments including: (1) various joint and survivor annuities providing for payments after one's death and (2) an annuity for one's own lifetime, with payments guaranteed for a certain number of years (e.g. 5, 10, 15, 20), with the remaining guaranteed payments going to a designated beneficiary if the participant dies before the relevant fixed period. Monthly benefits under these options are also adjusted to the actuarial equivalent of a life annuity beginning at age 65.

In 1978 pension sponsors published the Revised Pension Summary Plan Description ("1978 SPD"). The 1978 SPD describes how terminated vested participants can elect to begin pension payments as early as age 55. It further explains how a participant can opt for the various forms of payment, e.g. how one might provide for his spouse or other designated beneficiary.

The 1978 SPD describes the "Lifetime Only Income" as the payment option providing the largest monthly income; however, under this particular option the Plan does not pay any benefits after the participant's death. The Lifetime Only Income option is the normal form of payment to Plan participants, who are unmarried at the time of death, and the Plan pays all benefits under this particular option unless the participant specifically requests otherwise.

Charlie Coleman attained age 55 on July 23, 1986 and died on March 22, 1987. At the time of his death Coleman (1) was divorced and had not remarried, (2) had not elected to go into pay status, (3) had not elected any form of optional payment, and (4) had not designated a joint pensioner or beneficiary to receive benefits under one of the optional forms of payment after his death. The Plan provided specifically that if an unmarried terminated vested participant, such as Charlie Coleman, died before going into pay status, the Plan would not pay any pension benefits.*fn1

Coleman initiated this suit against Champion to recover the full amount of his father's pension, plus damages and attorney's fees. Coleman alleges that Champion failed to send Charlie Coleman various required notices, including REA*fn2 notices, and failed to send updated information reflecting the changes in the company sponsoring and maintaining the Plan. Coleman also seeks a $100 per day penalty for Champion's failure to provide him with Plan information on request. Coleman further asserts that Champion's failures prevented Charlie Coleman from exercising his Plan rights and exercising his options for receiving Plan benefits.

Champion filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that Coleman did not have standing under ERISA to bring this action because he is neither a "participant" nor a "beneficiary" as defined by ERISA. Coleman responded with a cross-motion for summary judgment alleging that Champion maliciously and wilfully violated ERISA participant notification requirements.

The district court held that Coleman had standing to bring the action under ERISA, but did not have standing to seek the $100 per day penalty for Champion's alleged failure to provide the requested information. However, the district court granted Champion's motion for summary judgment on grounds that (1) the REA notices did not have to be sent to employees who terminated employment prior to 1984 and (2) the 1978 SPD had adequately notified Charlie Coleman both of his right to begin receiving his pension as early as age 55, and of his right to designate a beneficiary to receive payments after his death. Coleman appeals ...

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